"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 13 February 2012

Rumblings from the Cask - Dram 4. Speyside at last!

Yay! - finally the trail has reached the distilleries on the banks of the River Spey.  That’s yer actual Spey I’m talking about now.  Proper Speyside!  None of yer outlying River Lossieside not really Speyside distilleries.  (And if you think I’m in trouble now then wait until we get to the distilleries in, *cough*, Islaside Keith).

The regional identifiers for whisky are often thought of as encompassing certain characteristics or a general style of whisky produced within each region/locality1 but has this maybe become a little bit anachronistic given the range of whisky styles now available?  The current, and far more prosaic SWA regulations define the ‘protected region’ of Speyside by identifying it with some of the political ward boundaries established by the Moray and Highland (Electoral Arrangement) Orders 2006 (Zzzz…).  Personally I prefer an alternative definition as being those distilleries that are located on or overlooking the banks of the Spey or one of its tributaries (that should just about avoid me being run out of Dufftown the next time I visit :/).

Regardless of how we define the region, after the long trail up the west coast and round the north of Scotland my travels have now brought me to the beating heart of whisky country where many distilleries have chosen to congregate.  It is oft reported that around half of the current working distilleries in Scotland, accounting for half of our total malt whisky production (and rising) are located in and around Speyside.  Thankfully that also means there are many whiskies to be had along the way to sustain me on this next section of the journey.

Classic field of barley photo, every whisky blog should have one
I have this surreal notion of the ‘spirits’, the very souls of the distilleries being like ancient noble entities, not dissimilar to the giants and gods of Celtic folklore, wandering the land in search of the elements that sustain them and on reaching the splendour of Speyside where pure water and grain are in abundance they stopped for a while, gazed across the vista and murmured ‘this will do just fine’.  Others followed and found their own corner to rest, their roots then running so deep that they become locked into the fabric of the land, and from there into the fabric of our minds.  The Spey is the artery running through the land, the burns and rivers that feed it are the lifeblood of the spirits, and the hills and glens provide the clean nourishing air.

Hehe – and I had the temerity to consider the old whisky spirit of Hector McDram as being well past his sell-by date.  Oops!  Anyway, dreaming aside (or was it dramming that conjured the above notion?) these stations in the land are there for us to witness all along the winding lower course of the Spey and in the hills and glens above, with a trail weaving between them for us to follow if we seek to offer homage at each place of rest.

The first centre that we reach around which these distilleries have gathered is Rothes - a small town with a population of around 1200 people (1400 when Barnard visited) and a busy wee place with the main road north to Elgin passing right through it.  There are five distilleries to consider here (four working and one ghost) and I enjoyed great hospitality at three of them.  The staff at the visitor centre in the town were also very welcoming and helpful and they found for me a book titled Rothes 2001 and ‘Oor Young Days’ that helped with some of the local information included in my reports.

Across Rothes golf course to the River Spey loop north of the town
The distilleries in Rothes sit on three separate burns that converge on each other just a couple of hundred metres before pouring out into the Spey as it passes by the east side of town.  The river has been driving northwards just before here but now turns almost back on itself in a wide loop before passing through the broad plain between the steep wooded slopes of Ben Aigan and Findlay’s Seat.  From there it settles on a north-northeast direction and rushes onward through the last few miles to Fochabers and its final act at Spey Bay.

From Rothes my own journey will travel in the opposite direction, cutting a long thin wedge southwest to the very centre of the Highlands, following the Spey upstream as far inland as Kingussie and visiting famous distilleries on both sides of its banks and in the glens beyond.  The whisky trail then turns sharply back in a roughly northeast direction that passes to the east of Ben Rinnes, loitering at Dufftown and Keith for a while (if they’ll still let me!) before once more reaching the shores of the Moray Firth.

Strathspey looking north; the end of the current Strathspey Railway in foreground
Meandering along close to the river is The Speyside Way, a 65 mile long countryside trail between the inland town of Aviemore and the coastal town of Buckie that passes through some of the most glorious pastoral land anywhere on the planet.  Most of my travelling is done by car - or by bus where there is promise of a dram or three - but occasionally I have walked along the trail for a while to explore the fertile countryside, climb onto a bluff for a different perspective of the landscape, visit some famous bridges…and be eaten alive by midges.

I am convinced that our particularly ferocious Highland midge, Culicoides impunctatus (or minutus bastardious) carries with it a flask of nasty moonlight hooch to wash off the Avon ‘Skin so soft’ cream that was applied as midge protection (don’t laugh, the army swear by it!).  They then use a sharp sgian dubh to pierce your veins and feast on the juices within.  I must have too much blood in my whisky-stream as I seem to be particularly prone to the little blighters - must remember to top up with a dram before venturing into the Highlands in future.  Or maybe they are after the taste of good malt whisky and it’s easier to bite through my soft white flesh to find it than it is to bang their head off a solid oak cask.  Hmmm, dilemma!

Aberlour railway station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre
The Speyside Way follows the course of the old Strathspey Railway for some of its route, particularly the central sections between Nethy Bridge and Craigellachie.  There are still a number of old railway station buildings beside the trail, some of which would have been very familiar to Barnard, often in close proximity to the distilleries that were brought here in the clouds of steam of our industrial heritage.  The availability of easier transport opened up the Speyside rivers and glens to large scale whisky production.  The previous seclusion of these places had supported the extensive smuggling of whisky in the Highlands, all but ended in the decades following the licensing regulations introduced in the 1820s.

I will save further talk of these laws and illicit dealings for when we reach the well known story of Glenlivet; one should ken when to bide one’s tongue on these delicate matters!  Railways, rogues and beasties aside it is time to move on to the Rothes distilleries - stories of whisky, fairies, gardens and ghosts (oh yes!), perhaps with a dram of Glenrothes, Speyburn, Glen Grant, Caperdonich or Glen Spey if you have any to hand.

1 The SWA regulations identify a total of five either protected localities (Campbeltown and Islay) or protected regions (Highland, Lowland and Speyside).  Campbeltown and Speyside are defined by electoral boundaries, Islay as the island of that name, and the famous old ‘Highland Boundary Line’ was all but redrawn (although not, sensibly, by name, preferring the more mundane “line dividing the Highland region from the Lowland region”) along a prescribed route starting in the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland and then roughly from Greenock to the North Sea beyond the Firth of Tay.